Words have meaning, but overuse can lessen their impact. Take, for example, the term “farm-to-table.” Originally inspired by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, it connotes a series of ideas about shortening the chain from farm to chef to stove to table. It’s supposedly about organic produce, natural meats, seasonal menus and simple food that’s simply prepared.
But somewhere along the line, “farm-to-table” became less Alice Waters and more a marketing slogan. It said more about how a chef wanted to be seen than about what came into and out of the kitchen. The term became meaningless.
Enter Chef Kurt Metzger and his Kitchen 4140 (4140 Morena Blvd. in Bay Ho). The restaurant, complete with an organic garden, is tucked into a business park on a stretch of Morena Boulevard that’s best known as the approach to Costco. As much as Metzger’s local / sustainable ethos is on display in that garden, it’s far more so on the plates coming out of his kitchen. Like most of the better farm-to-table spots, 4140’s menu changes seasonally. But what really distinguishes it is what Metzger two years ago told U-T San Diego‘s Keli Dailey: “Keep food real.”
Nowhere is this more clearly apparent than in Metzger’s signature dish, a beer-braised short-rib sandwich on roasted-pepper bread with pickled onions, mango chutney and an Asian slaw. The star of the dish is the glorious meat. The fresh and preserved produce serves as accents and textural contrasts, picking up on flavor notes from the braise. But the meat speaks for itself. The message of the Bistro Burger is similarly clear: The main player is the grass-fed sirloin, with all of the other ingredients dedicated to making the meat stand out.
Metzger demonstrates that he can work the other way around when braised beef short ribs appear as a supporting player to potato gnocchi, with fresh and pickled vegetables stepping forward. The prize of every forkful is that gnocchi, with the veggies providing fireworks and the perfectly braised meat serving as a grounding element.
Metzger employs a similar approach in the smoked-chicken pappardelle. While the chicken may not be the focus of the dish—that distinction goes to the utterly perfect house-made pappardelle—it’s certainly the best actor in a supporting role. The dish evolves with each bite. At first, the deep smokiness of the chicken steps forward, then the cabbage-y cauliflower, then the sweet and astringent notes of the farm-fresh carrots. But always it comes back to that pasta. It’s a brilliant dish that’s all about crafts, particularly smoking and farming.
“Farm-to-table”—something Europeans have done for years—did not (mythology aside) singlehandedly make Chez Panisse one of the best restaurants in the U.S. and beyond. The great culinary minds of Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Mark Miller et. al. did that; they made it great. Farm-to-table may be a start, but it’s not the end. And at Kitchen 4140 it is the start, culinary directness is the vision and craft is what ties it all together.